Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Then and Now: John's Pizza, Greenwich Village

Warm Memories

John's Pizza, 1976.

I stumbled across the above photo of John's Pizza taken in 1976 and it intrigued me. For those who aren't familiar with John's Pizza located at 278 Bleecker Street between 6th and 7th, New York City, it is a Greenwich Village institution. Let's do a then-and-now look at John's Pizza on Bleecker Street.

Founded by Naples, Italy, immigrant John Sasso in 1929 (as the canopy loudly proclaims, though it may be even older), John's was an offshoot of Lombardi's Pizza. This is the granddaddy of all pizza joints, a traditional restaurant opened in 1905 on Spring Street down in Little Italy. Lombardi's brought coal-fired ovens to the U.S. world of pizza. They run hot, and anyone who is an aficionado of pizza will tell you that the secret to a good pie is a hot oven. Sasso apparently learned his trade at Lombardi's. That restaurant also began the tradition of classy pizza places not selling by the slice.

John's first location was on Sullivan Street, but in 1934 Sasso moved over to Bleecker Street across from Jones Street.  The Vesce brothers purchased it in 1954, and in 1993, Bob Vittoria, one of their nephews or similarly related, became the majority partner.

Bleecker Street January 1956 randommusings.filminspector.com
The general locale of John's on Bleecker Street, January 1956. Photo by Albert Abbott.

Whether or not the restaurant actually opened in 1929 is a bit hazy. It may have opened to sell "pies" by Filippo Milone at 175 Sullivan Street in 1915, with Sasso taking over due to a marriage ca. 1925. But that's for historians to debate and is irrelevant to the mythology. Until they change the date on the canopy, I'm going with 1929. No matter, we can all agree that John's has been there for a long, long time.

John Sasso and the Vesces, randommusings.filminspector.com
John Sasso, Augustine Vesce, Joe Vesce, and Lucille Vesce. This is undated, but probably in the 1950s.

John's is well known for its 800-degree brick oven, its cash-only policy, and the fact that it doesn't take reservations. Unless there's a line outside, you can generally just walk in and grab a spot at one of the tables. If you haven't been there, form a picture of that high school or college joint with unpretentious tables and booths you may have frequented where they served big beers and you could throw darts or do something similar. That's the atmosphere. You know, an unpretentious but fun joint. That's John's Pizza.

However, it's not some corner dollar-a-slice pizza joint. They don't even sell slices. Pizza, calzone, and a few pasta dishes and sides, washed down with wine or beer. You sit down, order beer or the beverage of your choice, and partake of a pie with your friends. That's the deal, and it's a good deal for a Manhattan restaurant because prices are quite reasonable given the location.

The location next door that John's later expanded into in 1937 randommusings.filminspector.com
276 Bleecker, which is now part of Johns’s of Bleecker, February 2, 1937. The neighborhood at one time was full of Italian delis and the like, but now only John's remains. Photo by Bernice Abbott

"John's Pizza" has become a signature name. It was never as ubiquitous as "Ray's," which as any longtime New Yorker will tell you became practically the obligatory name for corner pizza joints. However, there have been "John's Pizzas" up and down Manhattan at one point or another. But this is the original one (and no, not the "original" as in the phony "Original Ray's Pizzas," but the real deal).

John's in 2009 randommusings.filminspector.com
John's in May 2009 (Google Street View).

John's also differs from many other pizza joints in not staying open late into the night. Closing time traditionally has been 10:00 p.m. Monday - Thursday and 11:00 otherwise, be there by then or come back some other day. If you waltz in right at closing time, you'll have to take your pie to go. It's a classy joint, appearances can be deceiving.

John's in 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
John's in June 2019. While the restaurant hasn't changed much in the ten years since the previous photo, the vans outside have gotten sleeker. (Google Street View).

John's has some practical advantages from being around so long. It is grandfathered in to use coal-fired ovens, which otherwise are not permitted. That's a nice barrier to entry for any business, not that John's needs any help. It also has become a selling point for the restaurant online. The pies have a  distinctive look as a result. The crust can be toasted black and crisp, and they slop on a lot of olive oil. Yes, it's quite tasty. New York City's clean and clear tap water from upstate no doubt helps the quality.

Among other authentic touches, the walls have photos of celebrities who have stopped by over the years. The worn wooden booths have etchings from patrons of long ago. The place has real atmosphere.

I had some great meals at those tables in my otherwise misspent youth. Great place to take a date who is down-to-earth. Or old schoolmates. Or visiting out-of-town relatives. Everyone should be able to afford the meal without taking out a second mortgage and be nice and full when they walk out. I can't say that about other well-known NYC restaurants.

John's in 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
June 2019 (Google Street View).

John's had to shut down its indoor dining in 2020 due to the pandemic. However, it reopened for indoor dining at 25% capacity on 12 February 2021. It also has or had outdoor dining. You can't deprive New Yorkers of their classic pizza!

2021

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Then and Now: Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue

History in a Bronx Intersection

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, 1951 randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, 1951 (The Bronx County Historical Society Research Library).

It's easy for me to get caught up in Manhattan, because there's so much to see there. However, I do venture out into the "outer boroughs" now and then, and this is one of those times. Let's do a then-and-now of Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue in the Bronx, NYC

The first thing I want to point out to people unfamiliar with New York City customs is that the avenues are sometimes streets and the roads are sometimes avenues. I know this makes no sense, but the main drag here is Fordham Road and the sidestreet is Valentine Avenue. This isn't Paris and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but it is a major hub near the Grand Concourse. As Jack would say, that ain't beanbag!

Another thing is that the area had a real small-town feel back in the day. You can spot Whelan's Drug Store, Gorman's fast food joint, Bond's clothier, and the like. If you took that 1951 street scene and transposed it to the midwest of the era, it would not look out of place at all. Believe it or not, there are still scattered sections of the Bronx that have a somewhat similar quaint feel, but it is long gone from Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, 1960s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, 1960s.

Above, we're looking northeast. In the 1951 shot, you can just see the edge of that billboard on the extreme left.

There are quite a few shots available of Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue. It has quite a history, with its shares of ups and downs, and we'll see some of them play out in these scenes. The top photo on this page from 1951 was taken on Fordham Road looking east toward Fordham University. You can see Keating Hall of the university in the 1951 photo and more recent ones because it was built in 1936 and is something of a landmark in the Bronx.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, October 2019. You can see Keating Hall at Fordham University, which was built in 1936, in the center of this recent photograph just as in the 1951 one.

Above, the same view looking east as in the 1951 photo. The billboards are all gone, Woolworth's is gone (bankrupt in the 1990s), and now it all has that dreary suburban strip-mall feel.

I'm going to show all parts of this intersection. While it may get a bit confusing which way we're looking, fortunately, there are certain landmarks such as Keating Hall to help us out. 

We've been looking east. Let's turn around and look the other way, toward the west.

East Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1926.
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1926.

Turning around from virtually the same spot as the original 1951 photo was taken and looking toward the northwest, we see on the right (north) side of the street what later became the grand RKO Fordham Theater in 1926. Designed by William H. McElfatrick and opened on 14 April 1921 as Keith's Fordham Theater, it featured vaudeville acts. With vaudeville on the ropes and the talkies luring moviegoers into the theaters, RKO bought it in 1929 and renamed it RKO Fordham. It became one of seven RKO theaters in the Bronx.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1940s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1940s.

Looking a little further west, we see how the area looked in the 1940s, with streetcars.

East Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1950s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1951.

The RKO Fordham didn't show exclusive films - that was the job of the Paradise - but certainly was successful.

East Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1960s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking west, 1950s.

A random street scene from the area. I love the barbershop pole out on the street. I can remember when they had wooden Indians out there. Those days are long gone, of course.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, mid-1960s randommusings.filminspector.com
RKO Fordham, ca. 1960.

Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens on the stage together at the RKO Fordham! Bestill my heart! I don't think they ever starred in a film together, so I'm not sure why they were there. However, I think we can call this the halcyon days of the areas.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1960s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1960s.

We're turned around again in the above photograph. I don't have a date on it, but the styles of the cars and what people are wearing make me think it is around 1967-69.

Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking east, mid-1950s randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking southeast, mid-1950s.

A quick look at the southeast corner (I think) of Fordham Road and Valentine Avenue. Looks like the 1950s to me. Imagine being a time traveler set down in some random year in this area, it would be awfully difficult to guess the exact year!

Fordham Road at Valentine St 1974 randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, 1974.

In 1974, the RKO Theater was still there, looking a bit worn and tired. It was, after all, over 50 years old by this point and we all show our age over the decades. There are some interesting similarities to how this area looked in 1974 and how it looks recently, however.

Fordham Road at Valentine Ave October 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue, looking northwest, October 2019.

First, I was able to precisely locate the recent shot directly above to the 1974 scene because a few things haven't changed. Namely, that building in the distance with the billboard is still there (though the billboard has shifted position). The red firebox in the 1974 shot just visible on the left is still there, kind of, though in a vastly different form (no doubt slimmed down to improve intersection visibility). The stoplight looks the same, though it looks as though they shortened the pole and removed the street signs to the opposite corner for some reason.

But, overall, a person transported from 1974 to 2019 should be able to recognize that they're in the same place at Fordham Road and Valentine Avenue even though the distinctive RKO Fordham is gone.

And that brings us, as Paul Harvey would say, to the rest of the story.

The Fordham Theatre lasted through the 1970s and was triplexed in 1976. It added a fourth screen in 1980 as cinemas became multiplexes in a bid to survive against television. However, as the recent photos illustrate all too vividly, the area was in decline.

The neighborhood’s business district lost its small-town feel, the nondescriptive chains moved in, and that was that. The Fordham Theatre closed and was demolished in March, 1987. It was replaced by strip-mall style retail buildings populated by the usual banks and pharmacies and random outlets. 

Sic transit gloria, as they say, at least the old neighborhood had some style and character even if it wasn't perfect.

I hope you enjoyed this random walk down Fordham Road at Valentine Avenue. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and this intersection does illustrate that in its own way. People shop differently now and are entertained differently, and you can see those changes through the camera lenses.

Thanks for stopping by, and please visit some of my other pages in the Then and Now series!

2021

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Then and Now: F.A.O. Schwartz at 58th and 5th

Times Haven't Changed That Much On Fifth Avenue

58th and 5th 1984 randommusings.filminspector.com
58th and 5th Avenue in NYC, 1984.

I like city views that show how little time can mean to big cities. If you go to many places in Paris or London, they'll be exactly like they were in the 1800s. New York City has some of those spots, too, though they're a bit less common. But sometimes you come across a view that has changed very little in almost 40 years, and that's saying something.

Above we have a view of 58th and 5th Avenue in 1984. If you're a native New Yorker or a longtime resident, you'll recognize the scene instantly even though it isn't taken from a typical tourist vantage point. We're looking south toward the Empire State Building, which you can see pretty clearly in this shot silhouetted against the sky. Just for fun, let's do a comparison with how this scene looked recently.

58th and 5th June 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
58th and 5th, looking south, in June 2019 (Google Street View).

While I couldn't get the same precise angle, the above is close enough. It shows a similar view south toward the Empire State Building. Let's pick out the things that are the same and a very few that have changed.

Southeast corner of 58th and 5th, July 2021 randommusings.filminspector.com
58th and 5th, looking east, in June 2019 (Google Street View).

The first thing you will have noticed if you have very sharp eyes is that the business at the extreme left of the 1984 photo (on the southeast corner of 58th Street) was F.A.O. Schwartz. It was an institution in 1984 and it likely seemed it would never close its flagship store on 5th Avenue. You may remember it from "Big" (1988) when Tom Hanks danced on the giant piano. New Yorkers fondly remember it for its annual Christmas displays, one of the highlights of the season.

F.A.O. Schwartz operated at 745 Fifth Avenue, the site shown in the 1984 picture and the one directly above, until 1986. Then, after some mergers and acquisitions that were all the rage in 1986, a new owner moved it across 58th Street to 767 Fifth Avenue, better known as the GM Building. That would be behind and to the left of where the 1984 photographer was standing.

Alas, after numerous ownership changes and a bankruptcy, F.A.O. Schwartz wound up being bought by Toys 'R Us in 2090. That corporation had a lot of problems. So, the flagship store in the GM Building closed down in 2015.

But not to fear! F.A.O. Schwartz reopened its store at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in November 2018. So, we can all still get our holiday fix there.
The GM Building at 767 Fifth Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The GM Building at 767 Fifth Avenue on the left, with 745 Fifth Avenue at the center-right in August 2021 (Google Street View).

Just to give a little perspective, the above capture shows the two sites of F.A.O. Schwartz on Fifth Avenue. The old site from 1931-1986 is in the center-right, while the 1986-2015 location in the GM Buildings is at the left. Yes, they literally just moved across the street. I personally identify F.A.O. Schwartz as being in the GM Building on the ground floor. It was spacious and had good light. I saw Susan Sarandon, who lives nearby, give some kind of presentation there in 2001. It really was a great location.
Bergdorf Goodman, 58th and 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
58th Street and 5th Avenue, looking southwest, June 2019.

Speaking of Bergdorf Goodman, you probably knew that it was that massive building on the far side of 5th Avenue in the 1984 photo. It has been there since 1928, so its centenary is coming up fast. Now, while it may have seemed like F.A.O. Schwartz was eternal, Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Avenue actually is eternal. It seems that if there's ever, God forbid, a nuclear holocaust, the cockroaches will still go to Bergdorf Goodman to buy their $300 sweaters. Bergdorf opened a men's store across the street (on the east side of 5th Avenue) in 1990 and since has expanded to take over the F.A.O. Schwartz space. 

You may remember Bergdorf Goodman from the film "Arthur" (1981). It was already a long-established presence then. However, Neiman Marcus, which owns Bergdorf Goodman, recently filed for bankruptcy due to the 2020 pandemic, so who knows what the future holds in store for it. Strangely enough, due to numerous corporate transactions, F.A.O. Schwartz, which has recently opened stores in Beijing, London, And Dublin, now is probably more financially sound than Bergdorf Goodman. That's life in the big city.
Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, and Sir John Gielgud in "Arthur" (1981) randommusings.filminspector.com
Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Avenue, in the background of a scene from "Arthur" (1981).

Anyway, so the view of Fifth Avenue south from 58th Street hasn't changed much since 1984 aside from some that. If you go there today, you'll see basically the same view and probably will for decades to come. As I like to say in this series, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the view south from 58th Street down Fifth Avenue in NYC proves it.

Thanks for stopping by! Please visit some of my other pages as we look at how things looked then, and now.

2021

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Then and Now: Downtown Beirut, NYC

Gone But Not Forgotten

Downtown Beirut ca. 1987 randommusings.filmiinspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1987.
To an out-of-towner or pretty much anyone unfamiliar with the ways of the East Village, the above street scene probably seems fairly mundane. A bunch of ratty shops in some ancient tenement, long gone and long forgotten.

To people who do know a thing or two about New York City and the East Village, they know exactly why this photo was taken.

Downtown Beirut!

We're going to do a quick then-and-now of First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1980s randmomusings;filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, the 1980s.
What was Downtown Beirut? A bar in Manhattan. You can describe it in various ways, but probably the most accurate is that it was a classic dive.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1981 randmomusings;filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1981.
As a dive, Downtown Beirut had a lot of company. Some of its peers were Hogs and Heifers in the Meatpacking District (1992-2015 RIP), Scrap Bar, Union Square’s bar/restaurant the Coffee Shop (1990-2015 RIP). and, well, I could go on for a while. But this isn't about them, it's about Downtown Beirut.
NIGHT AT DOWNTOWN BEIRUT, video by Mike Enright
A long city block from Tompkins Square Park, Downtown Beirut acquired an offbeat reputation. If you stayed late enough, some girls in halter tops and boots might get up and dance on the bar. The jukebox was renowned for having a great selection of tunes you were pretty unlikely to hear elsewhere. Want to play some pinball at 2 a.m.? Downtown Beirut was your spot.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990.
For such a quirky East Village dive, a lot of people still remember Downtown Beirut fondly. For instance, it was featured in "Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar" by Elissa Schappell. Mike Enright made a video about it. The New York Times included it in a 2012 list of "Manhattan's Most Mourned Bars." When you start poking around on the Internet looking for beloved New York bars of the past, "Downtown Beirut" always seems to pop up. That's no small feat considering the thousands of little hole-in-the-wall joints that come and go in the Big Apple.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
It's 3.a.m., do you know where your children are? A clip from a deleted scene from "Night At Downtown Beirut," video by Mike Enright
Unless you've lived in New York, you might not understand how these neighborhood joints served a need. The heavy metal crowd could hang out together at Scrap Bar, the models could sit at Coffee Shop's amazing bar and hold court and then walk over to a table and have some grilled shark, and the punk crowd could spend a few hours at Downtown Beirut. It wasn't that far from CBGB, you could catch Patti Smith and then walk over and play some pinball. It was nice to have a place to just be among like-minded folks and maybe all sing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" together in July just because you could. Why? Well, if you have to ask... No, that doesn't make sense, now does it, it's not supposed to, nothing makes sense in the middle of the night after you've downed a few with friends.
First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, New York buildings are eternal, especially in the East Village. The building was built in 1920, so it just celebrated its centenary. Yay 2020! It will probably still be there in 2120, too, because those old buildings never go away. It's what gives New York its charm.

As you can see above, "Downtown Beirut" is no longer with us. It closed in 1994 around the time of Rudy Giuliani's election as mayor. That location now houses "Yu's On First," where you can get a nice back and foot rub. If you go to Yu's Facebook page, it tells you that "We Believe Massage Is the Way to Physical Relaxation." Downtown Beirut did the same thing, in its own way. So, as we like to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I hope you enjoyed this random walk through the East Village. Please visit some of our other pages!

2021

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Then and Now: Drive Down 5th Avenue

Driving Through the Past

Park & Tilford, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 57th Street, New York City, in 1938. Home to a Park & Tilford grocery store.
Fifth Avenue in New York is one of the most timeless parts of the city. But just how timeless is it? I found this video of a drive down Fifth Avenue ca. 1938, late in the Great Depression but before all the changes wrought by World War II. So, I'm going to compare this 1938 video of Fifth Avenue to recent times.
Tiffany & Co., 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
You may know the old Park and Tilford location better as its 1940 replacement, Tiffany & Co.
The video shows both sides of Fifth Avenu, first the west side bordering Central Park, and then the East Side which was (and remains) primarily residential above 57th Street. Let's do some comparisons on how it looked in 1938, and how it looks today.


Just to get oriented, this is what the video shows (apparently one vehicle shot this while rolling three cameras in different directions, or they drove three times over the same route using one camera).

Start with the camera facing directly north ca. East 75th Street:

East 74th 0:22
East 73rd 03:34
East 72nd 0:45
East 71st 0:55
East 70th 01:05
East 69th 01:33
East 68th 01:47
East 67th 01:50
East 66th 01:58
East 65th 02:08
East 64th 02:16
East 63rd 02:26
East 62nd 02:58
East 61st 03:09
East 60th 03:16
East 59th 03:28 (Central Park South)
East 58th 03:39
End ca. East 57th

Switch at 03:49, west side of Fifth Avenue

65th Street 04:30
64th Street 04:42
West 60th 05:27
West 59th 05:38
West 58th 05:46
West 57th: 06:00
06:12 I believe that big maroon car is a Packard ca. 1937.
West 54th 06:26

Switch to the east side of Fifth at 06:52. Start just south of East 74th Street.

East 73rd Street at 06:56
East 72nd Street 07:14
East 71st Street 07:23
East 70th Street  07:30
East 69th Street 07:37
East 68th Street 07:44
East 67th Street 07:53
East 66th Street 08:18
East 65th Street 08:26
East 64th Street 08:33
East 63rd Street 08:42
East 62nd Street 08:49
East 61st Street 08:56
East 60th Street 09:32
Park & Tilford Grocer at 57th Street 10:00
E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers at East 55th in St. Regis  10:16 (Gattle closed in 1940).

Okay, let's look at a few specific scenes and see how they've changed.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, 1938.
First, we'll look at the very start of the video, looking north from around 75th Street. Let's look at how it looks recently.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, well, what do you know. It hasn't changed much at all. That apartment building on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue hasn't changed at all (the corner building is 1 East 75th  Street, and the one beyond is 944 Fifth Avenue). That's Manhattan, folks, in the residential areas you could go over 100 years without seeing much difference.

All right let's look at another spot. This time, we'll look at the corner of East 60th Street.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in 1938.
Okay, let's see what has changed in 80 years.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, it doesn't look like much has changed at all. That building on the northeast corner of 60 Street is the Metropolitan Club at One East 60th Street. It's had some renovations and facelifts over the years, but it's the same building that it has been since 1893. That's not likely to change anytime soon, either.

Let's move down by a little further, just down a block or two.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in 1938.
Now, this time we do have a noticeable change.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in June 2019.
The most obvious change is that now we can clearly see the Sherry-Nederland. It was built in 1927, and during the 1930s it was obscured by a wall of sandstone buildings. Now, that entire block of buildings is gone, replaced in 1968 by the General Motors Building and its plaza at 767 Fifth Avenue.

Let's just say that I'm not a big fan of razing all those classic old buildings between 58th and 59th Streets and replacing them with... that. The pointless plaza on the right destroys the effect of Grand Army Plaza on the left, which somewhat resembled an old town square when it was hemmed in on three sides. Now, it's just another open space.

Moving along, let's take a closer look at Central Park. While it may seem like it's just a big, you know, park, there actually are quite a few buildings in it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in 1938.
Well, that's certainly an old, castle-looking building. It sure looks spooky! Let's see if anything's left of it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, there it is! Well, obscured by trees, but trust me, it's all there.

There's actually a debate about how many buildings should be allowed in Central Park. The city could make quite a bundle, for instance by allowing in some fast-food restaurants there. They'd make a killing, too, because there are tons of hungry joggers and walkers and sunbathers in the Park all the time. However, so far those efforts have been resisted by people who think a park should be a park and not an open-air food court.

But the Arsenal at 64th Street has a unique claim to being in Central Park because it was there before there even was a Central Park. It was built in 1847-51 to be a, well, an arsenal. They designed Central Park around the Arsenal, and there is stays. Fortunately, they build such buildings to last back in the old days, and there are more of them remaining than you might think (such as the Archive Building in Greenwich Building). Anyway, the Arsenal was there in 1851, it was there in 1938, it was there in 2019, and it's likely to be there in 2200, too. It houses the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the nearby Central Park Zoo. If you want to reserve a ballfield or a tennis court, that's where you go.
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in 1938.
Fifth Avenue at 57th Street is one of the most desirable retail areas in the world. Judging from the 1938 scene, it was pretty fancy back in the day, too. The stately maroon car, incidentally, appears to be a 1937 Packard (correct me if I'm wrong).
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in June 2019.
Well, the look of this block obviously has changed quite a bit. That happens in retail sections of the city. However, in the 1938 photo, look on the other side of the street (57th Street Street). That building hasn't changed much at all. It is the Beaux-Arts style Bergdorf Goodman Building that was built in 1928. Now, if this video had been taken about a dozen years earlier, you would have seen the glorious Cornelius Vanderbilt II House. That is considered a long-lost treasure of New York architecture. But... the Bergdorf Goodman building is pretty memorable, too, and it's likely to be there for quite a while longer despite the 2020 bankruptcy of its parent company, Neiman Marcus.

Not everything was peaches and cream in 1938 despite all the fancy Phaetons and other signs of conspicuous consumption. The Great Depression was still in effect. Let's look at a subtle sign of it in our video.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in 1938.
The photo above shows a lovely Brownstone mansion that has seen better days. Those closed-off windows suggest that it has been abandoned and likely is slated for demolition. It's not the only one we see on our 1938 drive, either. I didn't hold out much hope that I would see it still there recently.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, the brownstone is long gone, along so with many others. In its place is 923 Fifth Avenue built in 1950 and converted to condominiums in 1983. Can you imagine a boarded-up building at 73rd Street and 5th Avenue these days? Those were some hard times.

Let's look at an interesting edifice.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in 1938.
This wasn't one of your typical Upper East Side mansions of the 1930s. Let's see if it is still there.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in June 2019.
Well, there it still is! That's the Lenox Library, completed in 1877 by James Lenox to house his personal book collection. The Lenox Library was old already in 1938, it's still around, and it's still housing those books from James' personal stache.

Let's take another look at Grand Army Plaza, this time looking to the west.
Grand Army Plaza in 1938 randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza and the Sherman Monument at 59th Street, 1938.
Okay, so far so good. We have a nice, clear view of the plaza and the statue. Everything looks pretty grim, but then again it was the winter. Now, let's look at the same scene more recently.
Grand Army Plaza in 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, it doesn't look all that different. But the two images certainly don't look identical. A few things jump out at us. First, it's a lot more crowded in 2019. This wasn't just because of the change in seasons and it isn't entirely due to a growing city population. According to the Census Bureau, NYC's population was about 7.4 million in 1938 and 8.2 million in 2019, not that big a change statistically. The difference, I believe, is that air travel has made New York City much more accessible to domestic and foreign visitors. As any native New Yorker will tell you, tourists crowd the streets, especially on a sunny day. The city also has done away with that shack in the background.

There's another big difference. That statue in the center is the Sherman Monument. It stands now pretty much where it did in 1938, because it was put there in 1903 (and moved fifteen feet ca. 1913-1915) and protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as a Scenic Landmark on July 23, 1974. So, it's a permanent fixture of the plaza.

But the Sherman Monument definitely looks different, and there's a good reason for that. The city and country were poor in the 1930s and there was no money for fixing up statutes. It is a bronze statue, and corrosion turns bronze to a green/black color with age. Corrosion had worked its magic by 1938, and the statue stayed that way for decades. Nothing unusual about that, the same thing happened to the Statue of Liberty. The federal government fixed the Statue of Liberty in 1986, and the Central Park Conservancy re-gilded the Sherman Monument in 1990. Does it look better in bright gold or the old green/black? You decide. But the restoration is a sign of the rejuvenation of the city in the 1980s and 1990s.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in 1938.
Finally, just as the video fades out, the driver makes it down to 55th Street. That is the location of the St. Regis Hotel, one of the grand hotels of Manhattan. These retailers lease their space from the St. Regis hotel. As can be seen, in 1938 we can see two of those retailers on the southeast corner of 55th Street,  E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers and Kayser Hosiery.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in June 2019.
Today, E.M. Gattle is long gone (it closed its doors in 1940). Kayser, on the other hand, is still in business as Kayser-Roth, though it long ago left its space in the St. Regis. Replacing them is Harry Winston, a top jeweler. As we like to say here, the more things change, the more they stay the same...

I hope you enjoyed this walk, er, drive down memory lane. If you did, please visit some more of our pages!

2021